Four reasons why every freelancer should work at least one “real job”

Image: Woman in cubicle

When I left college, I had no idea how printing presses worked.

I didn’t understand why people judged me for how I looked and not what I knew.

I knew no one in the design industry except the on-campus staff and students I worked with, and I sure as heck didn’t want one of those crappy, entry-level, junior designer jobs.

And then I got my first real design job at a vitamin manufacturing company…as explained by my supervisor, more of a label production job than a designer.

My very own desk, business casual attire, coworkers, the whole bit.

I was ready to rain awesomeness on the entire building.*

But you know what? That job rained awesomeness down on me. For five years I soaked up massive amounts of design, print, and office knowledge that I didn’t even realize I didn’t know.

So here are my reasons why every freelancer should work at least one “real job,” even if it’s part-time.

* My coworkers and I did work some pretty amazing magic there.

Gain perspective on being an employee and teammate

To you, it might not matter if you get the project done today or tomorrow, but your contact’s performance review may be affected by your timeliness.

By being an employee yourself, you’ll have a better appreciation for things like:

  • office rules
  • business etiquette
  • “design by committee”
  • working with people because you are required to
  • how many projects the average design employee is juggling at one time – without the ability to reject them (so you understand why they haven’t responded to the email you sent yesterday)
  • how mind-boggling long it can take for three upper-level management personnel to respond to a proof (and then want the 3 pages of changes done in an hour to meet the print deadline)

By understanding office life,* you can better prepare yourself to rock that new client meeting and be the dependable, go-to freelancer who earns those awesome long-term clients.

*Note: Some “real jobs” are super-fantastic.

Make connections

True story: My first freelancing client came from that “real job” I told you about. One of my ex-coworkers who had worked in the QA department (and was living in Ohio) knew an ex-coworker (living in northern California) who needed a designer.

We talk about it all the time on GDB – referrals are your largest source of new clients.

A “real job” has tons of connections – even my small company of 35 – and all you have to do is be friendly and do your best.

The connections don’t stop there, though – often times you’re in contact with vendors, design agencies, print shops, and customers.

When you strike out on your own, you’ll already have a large network of people who know and trust you to make recommendations or refer clients.

Learn from others’ mistakes

Everyone needs a good bad example.

It can be your supervisor’s silly rules that make your project take 5 times longer than necessary or a coworker who burns bridges by an idiosyncrasy.

Wherever you find those good bad examples (and you will), start an email to yourself that says, “When I’m freelancing, I will never…”

Vow to learn from the mistakes you’ve seen others making. It will save you a considerable amount of time, money, and stress.

Get an education on someone else’s dime

I was lucky.

In a two-person design department, I was responsible for at least half of the work, which included projects that neither of us had experience doing before.

We also had an in-house print shop, so I got to badger the press operators about every aspect of their machines/job until I could troubleshoot press problems myself.

Then I was promoted to supervisor, so I also learned how to manage a department. On top of doing half of the design work, it was also my job to improve cost-effectiveness, limit waste, increase productivity and efficiency, negotiate better materials pricing, and lay the smack down when necessary…heheheh.

(Okay, I was a fairly nice supervisor.)

Not a bad education for $17/hr.

The point is, a real job pays you money for new experiences and education. Take advantage of it and strengthen those weaknesses.

Thoughts? Comments?

Did you have a job before (or during) freelancing that taught you something amazingly beneficial for your own business? Share it with us by leaving a comment.

About April Greer

April is a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. She is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.

Comments

  1. One reason we go freelance is because we can’t get that “real” job in the first place. You can apply for thousands of jobs only to get a handful of rejection emails or hear nothing from employers. Even if you do get an interview, you still don’t get the job and they don’t tell you why.

    After I graduated from University, employers refused me jobs because of a lack of “work experience”. So I ended up working in a shop, working long hours for minimum wage. After 4 years, I still wasn’t getting the job I wanted because my work experience is “irrelevant” and a “different skill set”.

    Not being funny, April, just because you got lucky doesn’t mean you can ram it down our throats and preach. Everyone’s circumstances are different. You may say my comment is harsh, but your article does seem patronising.

    Lastly, connections come from Networking, socialising and meeting new people regularly. Not by sitting in an office all day.

    • Hi Mus,

      I’m very sorry you’ve had such trouble getting a job after college. I heard the same ol’ song when I was looking, too (2005 graduate): “You don’t have enough experience.” Yet how was I supposed to gain experience if nobody would hire me?! So I know how you’re feeling; it’s frustrating and debasing and hard to keep a positive attitude. I agree, I DID get lucky.

      That being said, working as a freelancer should gain you some of that precious experience everyone is looking for. The sequence doesn’t have to be office job > freelancer.

      It truly wasn’t my intention to ‘preach’ or ‘ram it down [anyone's] throats.’ I’m sorry you took it that way.

      You’re right about connections, and too many freelancers hide behind their monitors just like office-dwellers.

      Best of luck in your endeavors,

      April

      • Dear April,

        Thanks for the reply.

        I’ve seen your work and it’s amazing.

        Is it possible for me to email you my PDF portfolio? I would highly appreciate your critique of my work and your opinion on where I could improve.

        How do you obtain knowledge of how printing presses work?
        In the past, I offered to work voluntarily in graphic design/print shops, they either told me to “get lost” or made me “sit and watch”, ultimately I learned nothing. I can’t afford courses either as they cost thousands. So what should I do?

        Kind regards

        Mus

        • Mus,

          Thank you for your kind words – it’s always nice to have someone appreciate your work.

          I learned about printing presses from being extremely curious, friendly, and talking directly with the press operators. Most of the time the press operators are happy that someone is interested in their talent because offset printing – especially on older machines – is an art. Most print shops will also offer you a free tour of their facility if you’re printing something with them or have a relationship with them. If you’re checking on a proof, go visit!

          Please do email me your portfolio. My email is agreer[at]gmail.com.

          I look forward to hearing from you,

          April

  2. Taking the occasional part time or contract job seems to help me keep ideas flowing, too. For some reason, being somewhere and doing something not related to my freelance business helps me think of ways to market it, and gives me ideas for articles to write.

  3. Great article April. I agree completely and was thinking the same thing to myself recently.

    Although it takes some luck (and tons of proactive work) landing a “real job” will lead to an education you can’t get anywhere else.

  4. Im amazed at the amount of freelance designers who go from leaving uni to trying to become the big dog of the design world over night. Getting a “real” job to learn the ropes and improve your craft is an important part of becoming a superior designer in the long run. Gotta pay those dues!

  5. I agree with you April.

    The fact of our field is that your real education starts at your first job. Without the hands on experience of print or for that matter web one would be very scared and clueless if something goes wrong with a freelance job.

    Working for some one else also teaches one how to think (from senior designers/art directors) I would give credit all my aesthetic and technical knowledge I have today to my current and previous workplaces.

    • Well said, Pyramid Pixels!

      I learned volumes about marketing campaigns and the timeline required to plan and then launch a marketing campaign…it’s usually months rather than weeks, and I never would’ve guessed how long that timeline was beforehand.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  6. Evelyn Ortez says:

    I can’t even meassure how important having a “real job” has been to me…but since my third year of college i started with a part time job as jr designer and that gave me the taste of real world! i understand why people don’t want to sit on an office desk when coming out of college but why wait till you are out when you can start gaining experience while you are a student? yes it implies sacrifices and long non sleeping but now I’m almost out of college i have both the academic knowledge and the real life experience.

    • Evelyn,

      So smart of you to begin while you’re still in school. It’s a lot of work (I did it too), but having real-world experience on top of that degree is going to be super for you.

      Good luck!

      April

  7. I loved your article and couldn’t agree more. I actually had two ‘real jobs’ between finishing college and starting my own business—one as graphic designer in a very small marketing company, and the other started as working behind the counter in a copy shop that did colour photo copies, large format printing and blueprint copying when all of that technology was brand spankin’ new.

    I learned so much from both jobs—about what to do, and what NOT to do, as you mentioned in your article.

    One thing that many freelancers don’t realize, is that you need to learn a lot about general business practices to be a successful freelancer. You need to understand about quoting and invoicing as well as marketing, client communication, time management.. there are so many more things that I do every day that don’t have anything to do with designing.

    One of the biggest lessons that I learned from a boss was to always keep your overhead down and be aware of profit margins. At one company I worked for, we had a large office space, a staff, and a lot of new equipment. The company was generating what seemed to be a lot of revenue but when you did the math (as I did when I was developing a marketing plan as part of a government sponsored mentor program—which was awesome!) you’d see that we were spending far more than we made.

    So now, I always know exactly what my expenses are and how much profit I need to make from any new job I quote on. It’s not worth undercutting everyone else to get a job if it means you’re not making any profit.

    • Julie,

      SO TRUE! Being a successful freelancer depends not just on your design abilities, but on your business acumen – and more so on the latter. Learning this lesson from others’ mistakes is key to your success.

      Thanks so much for sharing!

      April

  8. The one thing I will never regret, is the getting the “real job” i have right now. I learn so much because I am in charge of my own department. The only downside is that I am also the only designer so I lose the creative team work that working at a design firm has. That’s why freelance is my creative pick-me-up!

    • Yes! In my experience, a ‘real job’ isn’t terribly creative. (There are small bursts.) But freelancing with a job can give you the best of both worlds!

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  9. I like the thought. As I left an unrelated-to-design job recently, it was made possible because I had a solid ad agency “job” (even though I am still treated as contract labor). I’m learning TONS about the design industry as a “technical” freelancer. However, in my mind, this consistent (and growing) “job” is paving the way for me to be able understand what it takes to build my own clientele. Thanks for the good perspective.

  10. If it wasn’t for getting a ‘real’ job, I would never have become a designer, full stop.

    I’ve never studied art or graphic design, but when I was a teenager was offered a job as a studio junior by a friend of the family. Sure, it was most definitely entry-level, and I was working a night shift from midnight to 7am – which believe me is hard work for an 18 year old – but I persevered, learnt the basics of layout and typography, and step-by-step worked my way up to the point of being able to call myself a graphic designer.

    From my experience, working in design and advertising agencies can really boost your knowledge and provide you with a great network of fellow designers. There is no disadvantage to working alongside designers with higher levels of skill and technical knowledge, as this essentially provides you with free training sessions.

    I was working freelance in London for a couple of years before deciding that it wasn’t working out as well as I expected, so went for a couple of interviews and landed a job at an agency in Amsterdam.

    3 years later I was head of the design studio at Wieden & Kennedy, and not only working on multi-million dollar campaigns for clients such as Nike, Heineken and Coca-Cola alongside such great designers as Robert Nakata, but had also learnt how to manage a design team of 10 and run a successful studio.

    Don’t turn your nose up at going to work for someone else – you never know where it could lead you…

    • Mat,

      Me too – I went to college for a programming degree! I wanted to work at Pixar until I took an animation class and found out how terribly tedious it was.

      I got a job on-campus at the design/production studio and really found my love and (hopefully) talent for graphic/web design. I stayed there all four years and the rest is history.

      Thanks for reminding us that the doors of opportunity open and close all of the time, and that it’s not always a direct path from to your career goals.

      April

  11. Great article! I love what you said about how people wonder why their previous day’s email hasn’t been responded to, or how board directors expect 3 pages of change to be done to meet printer’s deadlines, when it took them 3 days for them all to approve the work — so funny yet true!

    Just a couple questions:

    1) By the term “design by committee”, does that simply mean designing something together as a team? If so, can you elaborate a little more on this (or perhaps write another blog post on this in future)?

    2) What do you mean a coworker who burns bridges by an idiosyncrasy?

    • Priscilla,

      “Design by committee” generally refers to a group of people making design choices. Sometimes this leads to endless changes because everyone wants to feel important by making a change.

      However, I like your idea of blogging about collaborating successfully with other designers, so I’m going to add that to my writing board.

      As for coworkers, sometimes you get one with an annoying or odd habit or mannerism. Maybe they type LOL at least once per email and it looks totally unprofessional to you or they overshare their weekend (every Monday) with you.

      Thanks for the kind words, and hope this helps!

      April

  12. What a great article! This rings so true for me. I had a few production artist jobs before settling down for 5 years at a print/marketing company where I learned a ton of things that are helping me to this day. While everyone in my school was adamant about getting that one dream design job where they would get to work on amazing creative projects with no concern for budget or other limitations, I felt it was important to have a solid print/production background before going for that type of position. Some designers do get lucky and are talented enough to work on those types of projects right out of school, but I still feel you need some “real” world type of experience first.

    • Fabiola,

      Understanding that you have to stay within tight budgets, even tighter deadlines, and that sometimes the decision-makers don’t agree with you and you have to do it anyway is a priceless learning experience.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  13. Great article… I am currently a Graphic Designer in a small printing firm and have been for exactly six years since leaving University. Was hoping to go straight into film making but got lucky and landed the design role by chance.

    I have grown so much as a person as what to do and what NOT to do within a business (My boss is a shining example of what NOT to do!). I even have a contact who used to work for Saatchi and Saatchi who has trained me well. Good referral as well when I do make it freelance.

    • Luke,

      That’s another great thing about a ‘real job:’ someone in the industry can vouch for you, and often it’s a few someones. Can never have enough people saying positive things about you.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  14. I graduated 4 years ago and have been on 30 interviews. All said i did not have enough job experience despite internships, freelsnce and spec work. I started a buisness but had to dissolve it because I wasn’t getting enough buisness. I feel that I needed to work first in order to be able to start my own buisness.

    I lived with my parents during college so that I wouldn’t be in debt. Today I am 28 and still live with my parents because my mailroom courier job doesn’t pay enough to make ends meet.

    I am afraid to go back to school because I don’t want to go into debt and be in an even worse situation. I don’t know what to do.

    • Ludovic Urbain says:

      You’re obviously suffering from a distinct lack of self-confidence, which you should address separately as well.

      To get a job, Cut the fear, do a significant project for free (find an institution or do it for yourself) the best you can, showcase it and send it with a resume to every consulting business in the country.

      There is no way you won’t have a job after that.

    • Talia,

      There’s no reason to ‘dissolve’ a business because it isn’t a full-time paycheck. A lot of freelancers also have full-time jobs and build their clientele until they can make the switch. (Some just prefer the extra side income and have no intention of going full-time freelance.)

      Anyway, what’s there to dissolve? You don’t need much to start a design business, and you don’t need much to keep it going.

      I heard the whole “you don’t have enough experience” right out of college, too. And I was frustrated. How do I gain experience if no one will hire me??? But I persisted, and got lucky, and landed a “label production” job that occasionally had graphic design work, too. In 5 years, I rose to supervisor of the department.

      The point being, if you want to be a designer, don’t give up. Do some free work for non-profits in your area (it helps to believe in their cause) to build your portfolio. Contact agencies in your area and see if you can intern or job-shadow for a short period of time (this is easier to get “yesses” if you’re a student, but it’s worth a try). In this economy, people are a little more understanding if you’re human, gracious, and explain your circumstances.

      After four years, you probably won’t be able to get a design job right away, but by getting a foot in the door via the above is a step closer than you will be if you keep on keeping on at your current position.

      Good luck, and do something today to work toward your goal!

      April

  15. Ludovic Urbain says:

    I think every freelancer should get a real job once, to know exactly what it is they’re running from.

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